Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ethics without God?

About a month ago on James Altucher's very popular blog, someone asked a question: how do you find ethics without religion? (You can read the question and answer section right here:
I believe Italian author Francesco Agnoli gives a very convincing answer in this page of his book: "Perché non possiamo essere atei" (Why we can't be atheists). The book was published by the Italian publisher Piemme in 2009.
I translated and edited the page, for brevity, previous permission from UCCR, Unione Cristiani Cattolici Razionali. You can find the original article in Italian here:
Translating from Italian to English is difficult. At least for me. I hope what I wrote is easily readable. I welcome your comments. Thank you.

Let’s really think about it. What sense does the moral life of individuals have, if a superior criterion of justice does not exist? Is there a true law, a just law, which is applicable to everybody because it is superior and precedes Man; or every one has the right to believe whatever one wants, to create one’s own moral truth and one’s own ethics?
Are man and women un-conscious beings, whose acts are always “good”, like those of animals, because they are natural and governed by instinct; or are men and women instead conscious beings (what a difference!), capable to choose, masters of their own life, who can be free from the brutal imperiousness of instinct and senses?
If we delved into the issue, we would see that it was just the existence of a moral life to convince great historical figures that the nature of Man is not only animal but also spiritual; and that led them to pose themselves the question of God. I will cite one of these figures, for example: the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky can be considered the greatest representative of Russian realism; in era in which other writers, such as the “differently-believing atheist” Emile Zola, maintained that Man could become omnipotent, thanks to scientific knowledge; and that he should be examined exactly like a “pebble found on the road”; because in fact he was nothing more than that.
Dostoyevsky ”explores the streets of the city, the most forgotten an deserted alleys, describing the most sordid taverns, the most sinister doorways, the filthiest hovels...the infected crawling belly of Saint Petersburg, the home of vice and human degradation”. Drunks and whores, peasants turned factory workers, forced into a dreadful life and then into becoming violent and nihilist revolutionaries. But there is an enormous distance between the Russian author and the positivism and determinism of Emile Zola, (who gives absolute pre-eminence to the environment and material and social conditions). In Dostoyevsky we find an on-going investigation of the spirituality of the single individual, endowed with free will and faced with the choice between good and evil, (here we have the existential tragedy), faith and atheism. 
Good, evil, guilt, (ignored by the French naturalists) are precisely Dostoyevsky’s basic themes, which make him a novelist endowed with a profound religious sensitivity and, at the same time, a “psychological author”; in fact a precursor to the existentialist writers.
We find ourselves, therefore, at the opposite pole of the positivist culture of that time; and of today’s, as well. While Dostoyevsky describes and probes the abyss of the human condition, positivist doctors, like Emilio Littre, declare that “crime is a form of madness”; criminologists like Cesare Lombroso examine and catalogue “deficient craniums”, assuming therefore to be able to reduce the personality, the freedom, the uniqueness of every individual to his or her physiognomic characteristics; believing, and here too the word is not accidental, that man is defined exhaustively by what can be seen and touched: the size of his skull, the length of his limbs or his malformations and by the disposition and the volume of knobs on his head.
Exactly like the first theoretician of racism would do; or Charles Darwin, for that matter, assuming that the smaller size of a woman’s skull, with respect to that of a man, is a sign of women’s inferiority; or the Nazis, when they would tour the world, up to Tibet, making gypsum imprints of the faces of the natives, to trace back the path to the superior race using measurements and physiognomic criteria. A little bit like we do today, when ever more often we try to make a deviance or even a virtue pass for a genetic trait.
To understand Dostoyevsky’s vision of the world, it is necessary to outline briefly his life. Fyodor frequented subversives groups advocating a revolution in Russia, to overthrow the Czar and edify a new society. In 1849, the police arrested many of them, Dostoyevsky included. He was condemned to death, but later the Czar reduced his sentence to four years deportation in Siberia. His only reading material, during that very long time, would be a New Testament, which a woman had given to him while he was being taken away.
Following this experience, Dostoyevsky’s perspective would change radically. He became a critic of his former convictions; he would show greater respect for the Orthodox Church and the authorities, and also a certain disdain for the Russian intellectuals who read the European authors of the Enlightenment, out of despise for the culture of their motherland.
 In the meanwhile, his marriage had failed. He took to traveling throughout Europe, continuously falling back into his addiction to gambling and sex, and at the same time writing newspapers articles and novels at a continuous pace, to be able to pay his expenses and refund his creditors. (He would often write at night, filled with coffee and tobacco to stay awake.)
His intemperate life would finally end in 1881.


Crime and Punishment”, (1866), Demons, (1871), and The Brothers Karamazov stand out among his great novels.
In the first of these novels, a theme that later will fascinate Nietzsche appears: the search for freedom as an affirmation of the individual, beyond moral and conscience; “beyond good and evil”. The main character, a penniless former student, Raskòl’nikov, killing an old money lender woman with a hatchet, besides doing it for the money, whishes also to find out if he’s a “Napoleon” or a “louse”; if he belongs to the category of the mass, of the “common men”, for whom moral law is sacred, or to the category of the “uncommon men”, destined to greatness, to whom ordinary laws don’t apply. For this reason he says: “I didn’t kill a person. I killed a principle!” The principle being the affirmation of superiority of the moral law and the superiority of a God who imposes those objective laws.
 To Dostoyevsky’s characters who want to affirm their limitless freedom, assert their own divinity and become “Men-Gods”, the concept that to do so they would have to get rid of God appears obvious. But Raskòl’nikov fails: after having committed the crime, he can’t even steal. His nerves fail him. He’s overcome by panic and delirium. He doesn’t even show the presence of mind to hide the incriminating evidence. He becomes aware not to be a second “Napoleon”, and he’s left with a void and a strong sense of baseness.

If in fact all our chances to affirm ourselves are in this world, the ones who don’t achieve prestige, power, honor, like Napoleon, for what have they lived? What goals have they reached?
But Raskòl’nikov is changed by his meeting with Sonja: a sweet, good, intensely Christian girl, who prostitutes herself to rescue her parents from beggary. With time, things would change for Raskòl’nikov. The hope of “future redemption” and a “new understanding of life” would appear within him. But Dostoyevsky only hints at Raskòl’nikov’s rebirth and his personal change: that is another story which the author doesn’t tell.
Dostoyevsky is only interested in one fact: conscience exists, it knocks and it makes itself felt. Good and Truth are not relative to man’s whims and they are objective things. What is right is right because God exists. What is wrong, evil and bad no man will be able to turn into good, because Man is not God!
In Crime and Punishment we find the Christian ideas of sins, redeeming suffering and mercy.
Sin makes Raskòl’nikov life impossible; it isolates him; it estranges him from the rest of human kind. Suffering, the cross carried with awareness and resignation, is the way to redemption. Mercy is Sonja’s unconditional love towards him which drives him to change.
But Dostoyevsky’s greatest novel is “The Brothers Karamazov”. This work of literature also has, like other books of Dostoyevsky, the appeal of a great very suspenseful crime story.
The novel originated from Dostoyevsky’s reflections upon a real life parricide of which Dostoyevsky had met the culprit in Siberia.
The main issue that will be raised in every part of the book - Dostoyevsky writes - is the same for which I’ve suffered, consciously or unconsciously, my entire life: the existence of God.”
Two figures tower above everybody else in the novel: Alyosha Karamazov, with his Christian vision of how the world should be, (maybe the model of the person Dostoyevsky would have liked to be?), and the opposite: his brother Ivan, with his tormented search for freedom by means of a nihilist revolution; his being infected with “western sickness”, which to Dostoyevsky meant atheism; and his inability to accept religious concepts like suffering, humiliation and the cross.
  Ivan with his talk and his philosophy is the true instigator of the murder of his father, although he is not the one who would materially carry out the killing.
Here too we are dealing with a “philosophical murder”; because with his arguments Ivan has convinced the future murderer, his stepbrother Smerdyakov, that everything is permissible, because God does not exist.
The devil himself reiterates this to Ivan: “Conscience? What is it? I have invented it myself! Why is it torturing me? It’s a habit. It’s the seven thousand years old universal habit of human kind. Let’s get rid of it, and we’ll be gods!”
In the end, Ivan, feeling guilty for his father’s death and for the unjust conviction of the other brother, the violent and impulsive Dimitri, goes insane. Smerdyakov, the material killer, commits suicide; and Dimitri, who had hated his father so much, to the point of wishing to destroy him in his heart, is convicted of the murder even if he’s innocent.
Crime, conscience, freedom, acceptance of punishment, and recognizing the existence of an objective divine moral law: this is in synthesis Dostoyevsky’s anthropology.

A few years later, Russia would be devastated by the Communist Revolution, and by Lenin’s and Stalin’s waves of persecutions.
The former, the inventor of the gulag, would say: “For us, the old system of human empathy and morality no longer exists, and it could not exist...Our morality is new...Everything is permitted to us...Blood? So be it.

The Man of  Steel.

Stalin, who had been foreseen prophetically, together with his followers, by Dostoyevsky, in Demons, would state: “Ivan the Terrible was extremely cruel; but we need to show why he had to be so. One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was that he did not exterminate, down to the last, the five great feudal families...He killed somebody, then he would pray for a long time and repent. God was an obstacle for him, in his work. We need to show even more resolve.
Therefore God, meaning a superior moral law that precedes Man, was not an obstacle or a hindrance for this “Man of Steel”, the one responsible for the extermination of the Kulaki, the jailer of the Gulags and the inventor of the great purges! Stalin was a man emancipated from God: a Raskòl’nikov, an Ivan: coherent till the end and unrepentant.
Stalin didn’t fear God’s justice, and he didn’t think he had to invoke His mercy, because he had decided not to recognize anybody above himself.                                  


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